A few days ago, I was telling an Italian friend of mine who lives in Berlin about the recent countless cases of police brutality in New York City and in the US as a whole. I was telling him about the disrespect, the violence, and the arrogance usually shown by police officers toward the general population, and the outright brutality visited upon some particular sections of it; think, for instance, of the Stop-and-Frisk Law, especially targeting young black and Latino men in New York.
He was astonished. He said that these kinds of things would never happen in Berlin. Indeed, to begin with, in Berlin police officers are rather discrete: their uniforms, their cars (grey and blue and hardly distinguishable from all other cars), their manners. They don’t represent that show of force we are used to in cities like New York. I myself witnessed a few encounters between the police and the public, and I saw the difference in the mode of the relationship between them and those taking place in New York. For instance, I saw a group of migrants, obviously from Eastern Europe, cleaning car windshields at a traffic light around the Tiergarten. When the police came, they all ran away and disappeared in the park. A few moments later, two of them (two very young men) reappeared, with their utensils in their hands, trying to hide them from the police, who were still in their car. They made a signal to the police with their hands, and the police responded in a similar manner. A few minutes later, they came back. They talked to the police, who were now standing on the sidewalk. Their manners –of all of them—were very civil, human, even friendly. Soon, they all left, and there was quiet again.
One may expect that in New York something like this would have caused some kind of violence: beating, arrest, even death. In New York, people are arrested and brutalized for jaywalking, drinking a beer in the park or at the beach, changing cars on the subway, occupying two seats on the subway train or sleeping therein, riding their bike on the sidewalk, ‘resisting arrest’ when they are perhaps simply trying to talk commonsense to the police, and other similar situations – selling loose cigarettes, which was the probably false accusation against Eric Garner in Staten Island, which led to his tragic death.
The city of New York should take example from Berlin. There is no need for such violence. We, the residents of New York, are very tired of it, and the situation has to change now. Police officers should do some critical thinking. Perhaps they have already gone through college, but they should go back: learn what it means to respect people, their dignity, experience, and freedom. Stop acting as if they owned life, because they don’t. Understand that “I can’t breathe!” means exactly what it says. Respect other people’s intelligence as well.
One thing is certain, in Berlin Eric Garner would still breathe.